Clint Eastwood has helmed a host of excellent films over the past four decades – from 'Play Misty for Me' and 'Unforgiven' to 'Mystic River' and 'Million Dollar Baby' – but it's quite possible no project has fit him better than 'Gran Torino.' Combining elements of classic Eastwood characters from years past, this quiet, affecting study of one man's social evolution suits both the actor's strong, silent persona and the director's affinity for introspective, relevant works. With the sure hand and economic style that has defined his cinematic canon, Eastwood takes a simple story and tells it in a straightforward manner, without all the flashy technique that often sabotages the work of his peers. The result is another unforgettable effort that sticks to the ribs and touches the soul.Korean War vet Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) isn't an animalistic barbarian like his literary counterpart, Stanley, in Tennessee Williams' 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' but just as much seething rage simmers beneath his skin. Lonely, bitter, and bigoted, Walt abhors the declining moral state of American society in general, and the deterioration of his lower-income Detroit neighborhood in particular, which has been overrun by Asian immigrants and infiltrated by violent gangs who wage constant turf wars. He constantly mutters derisive, epithet-laced complaints under his breath, and rudely shuns any form of personal contact that doesn't involve his beer-drinking cronies at the corner bar.
The film opens at his wife's funeral, where a glowering Walt sneers at his grandkids' inappropriate attire and flaunts his aversion to his estranged grown sons, who, after years of neglect, now only make feeble attempts to win his affection and respect. His most meaningful relationship is with his loyal dog and prized '72 Gran Torino, which he helped build during his 40-odd years on the Ford assembly line and treats with more nurturing tenderness than his flesh-and-blood children. In many ways, the Torino is Walt, an iron bastion of a bygone age symbolizing strength, order, and core values – ideals to which Walt steadfastly clings, and will soon act upon in a most unexpected fashion.
Walt's neighbors are a close-knit Hmong family. (The Hmong people fought alongside the Americans in Vietnam, and were forced to flee their country at the war's conclusion.) The feisty Sue (Ahney Her) doesn't take crap from anyone, including Walt, but her mild-mannered brother, Thao (Bee Vang), is easy prey for a rough Asian gang that ceaselessly torments him in the hope of breaking his will and steering him into a dead-end life of crime and depravity. Walt sees the tortured Thao teetering on the precipice and begrudgingly steps in to help him. In the process, he develops a surprisingly intimate relationship with Thao's family, widening his cultural perspective and satisfying the paternal urges he's suppressed for decades.
On its surface, 'Gran Torino' seems a bit like an afterschool special – grumpy old codger is softened by troubled teen, and the two teach each other about the finer points of life – but because Eastwood presents the story in such a terse, matter-of-fact manner and doesn't spoon-feed us the emotion, the themes carry more weight. Nick Schenk's measured screenplay is chock full of all kinds of potentially trite and treacly ideas. There's tolerance and intolerance, letting go of the past and sowing the seeds of the future, being a man and respecting your fellow man, atoning for past sins, coming to terms with who you are and what you stand for, and when it's time to take a stand and make a sacrifice. Yet Eastwood navigates this minefield well, and by making the audience hunt and peck for those simple truths, they resonate more strongly.
It's impossible to imagine anyone other than Eastwood as Walt. With a hollow-toned voice reminiscent of Christian Bale's Batman and a tight-lipped toughness that recalls Dirty Harry Callahan (especially when he confronts the unlucky punks who cross his path), the aged actor is still a riveting screen presence, and we hang on his every word. Directing oneself must be a daunting task, but Eastwood keeps himself on a tight rein and files an honest, forthright performance. And by choosing a cast of relative unknowns to support him – all the Hmong actors have little, if any, experience – 'Gran Torino' feels more authentic and intimate than most big Hollywood films.
Though the trailer spotlights the story's confrontational aspects and Walt's vigilante moments, 'Gran Torino' is not a geriatric version of 'Death Wish.' On the contrary, save for a few brief moments of violence, it's a very quiet, character-driven story. Eastwood takes his time developing the relationships and carving the chinks in Walt's armor, and occasionally the movie drags as a result. But when regarded as a whole, there's not much fat on 'Gran Torino,' and seemingly insignificant moments between the gruff Walt and insecure Thao resonate more strongly in retrospect. This is definitely a movie that needs to be seen more than once, and its myriad subtleties will yield fresh rewards with each subsequent viewing.
It's amazing to think that a 78-year-old is arguably the most prolific commercial filmmaker of the past five years, but given Eastwood's style, work ethic, and commitment to his craft, it's really not surprising. Let's just hope his productive streak continues, and for the next decade or more he keeps telling meaningful, thought-provoking tales like 'Gran Torino.' Although it may have flown under the Academy's radar last year, this quintessential Eastwood film deserves its place among the best releases of 2008.
'Gran Torino' arrives on Blu-ray sporting an almost perfect 1080p/VC-1 transfer that possesses marvelous contrast, depth, clarity, and color temperature. A few vibrant hues, such as green grass and foliage, perk up the drab urban setting and provide welcome splashes of nicely saturated color, while earth tones and interior shades display enough variation to lend the image wonderful texture and dimensionality. Eastwood is a realistic director, and his slice-of-life visual style translates well to high definition, bringing viewers directly into his characters' environment. Best of all, no imperfections, such as print debris, mosquito noise, banding, or macroblocking distract us from the drama.
Blacks are inky and rich, and exceptional shadow delineation adds warmth and fullness to the picture. General details remain well defined throughout, and though close-ups enjoy fine clarity, they're not quite as crisp as some 1080p efforts I've seen. Fleshtones, however, always look natural, from Eastwood's weathered white skin to the various shades that distinguish the multi-ethnic cast.
Though this top-flight effort from Warner may not qualify as demo material, it nevertheless honors Eastwood's vision, and beautifully complements the understated storytelling.
A strong Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track enhances the power of 'Gran Torino,' but this relatively quiet film can't always take advantage of the format's multi-channel capabilities. Much of the audio is anchored up front, but terrific pans across the left and right speakers heighten the immediate feel of the action. Cars smoothly move in and out of the sound field, crossing into the rears when necessary, and the subtleties of street noise and natural urban ambience lightly envelop without attracting undue attention.
Dialogue, for the most part, is clear and comprehendible, though some of Eastwood's guttural utterances are unintelligible. Accents such as rifle cocks and the spray of machine gun fire sound crisp, but not much bass filters into the soundtrack, so the subwoofer stays quiet. The unobtrusive and sparingly used music score fits smoothly into the mix, and the song that plays over the end credits – begun by Eastwood, but sung primarily by Jamie Cullum – enjoys marvelous clarity and depth of tone.
'Gran Torino' won't give your system much of a workout, but this fine lossless track maintains the film's realistic feel and keeps us absorbed in the narrative.
Surprisingly thin supplements grace this Blu-ray disc. Eastwood probably doesn't have the patience for an audio commentary, but the perspective of the writer and producers would have been welcome. A trailer would have been nice, too.
If you're looking for a movie that encapsulates everything Clint Eastwood is as an actor and filmmaker, look no further than 'Gran Torino.' Efficient, understated direction and authentic performances highlight this simple, affecting story of transformation and salvation. Excellent video and audio transfers heighten dramatic impact, and though a slim spate of supplements will disappoint fans, they can't keep this disc from earning a hearty recommendation.
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